Nxai Pan National Park is one of the smaller game reserves in Botswana, with Khama Rhino Sanctuary being another one. The Makgadigadi Pans dominate the region, grabbing all our attention. Nxai Pan is only 2500 km², a small blip on the radar when compared to the expanse of the CKGR. The Chobe National Park is ten times as big, or even the Makgadigadi Pans are enormous in comparison, so one could be forgiven if it doesn’t show up on a route planner.

The gate to the Nxai Pan Park is right on the A3, the main road between Nata and Maun. This road needs some work as there are many potholes if you’re coming from Nata. It is sometimes beneficial to drive next to the tarmac, as the wide sandy stretches bear witness to. Keep your eyes peeled around here, some potholes could swallow a tyre!

South Camp

It is about forty kilometres from the main gate to South Camp – if you take the ‘shortcut’. The GPS would like you to take the longer route, which adds a further thirty kilometres. Whether the shortcut is faster is up for debate though. It is the same soft sand as we encountered in most of the dry regions of Botswana, sometimes hard going and definitely not a fast route. Just shorter. Although, by now, we have a pretty good grasp on how to tackle these roads, and if you air down your tyres (like in the other national parks) you should be okay. Either way, no matter how you drive, it is a couple of hours to get to the South Camp.

South Camp gets its name from the southern edge of the Nxai Pan. Although you wouldn’t really know you were on a salt pan. While it is flat and sparse, there are some trees and a sprinkling of dry grass and bushes. At the scout camp you need to check in again (they do make sure to track your movements throughout Botswana, which is nice to know). At the game ranger scout camp, you check in again. This is quite a large camp that serves as entry to the Nxai Pan area and they do the maintenance in the park as well.

South Camp itself is a couple of kilometres from the Scout Camp and consists of about ten campsites that are about thirty metres apart with a couple of ablution blocks. These are freshly painted and well maintained surrounded by a fence and elephant ‘spikes’ (concrete blocks with points on them that you can’t stand on, or at least the elephants can’t – this protects the building from damage from the elephants constantly looking for water).

The camp pitches are very basic, with no facilities except for a braai and a campfire area. The ground is the usual dust underfoot. The park has taken note of the risk of flooding the camp areas during rain. The clay soil doesn’t allow for drainage and the campsites are slightly lower than the surrounding area. They are working on this and we saw a crew unloading a very old truck and spreading gravel to raise the campsites.

There is plenty of shade, and the sites are quite level – level enough for your roof tent. The sites are also large enough, that you can get several vehicles in here (we had four with room to spare). It is, of course, unfenced.

Elephants in camp

Our campsite (number four) is right on the elephant path. This means we had elephants walk through our camp on numerous occasions. It is especially freaky at night when you’ve got the fire going and are trying to cook dinner when suddenly the darkness seems to move at the edge of the fire light. A huge shape floats by in the darkness, unheard and barely seen. These enormous animals are very, very stealthy.

Even during the day a large bull saunters over to us, then slightly hesitant, makes a small detour around our vehicles to continue on his way through the campsite. If you are of nervous disposition this will be a scary proposition. I mean, what do you do?

Thankfully we had just come from Elephant Sands, where we spent a good amount of hours studying their behaviour. You can tell when they are agitated, and equally when they are calm. As long as you don’t make sudden movements (that can startle them) and stay consistent (also while driving your car) they don’t seem to mind. I’m sure they have seen quite a few guests come through the park! But the privilege of seeing these (wild) animals up close and without barriers is something truly special.

Waterhole

I’m going to nominate this as one of the best waterholes in Botswana. It is on the Nxai Pan, just a few kilometres from South Camp. This means there isn’t much in the form of greenery, but wildlife is abundant. Early morning is, of course, the best time to come and spend an hour just watching the comings and goings of the animals.

And it is quite busy! A buffalo runs in and sinks his head into the water for a full seven minutes. An elephant stands nearby trying to drain the waterhole as well. A couple of giraffes feel safe enough to stoop down low and take a drink. Zebras, wildebeest, springbok and impala. A stray ostrich and the ever-present jackals. Birds swarm in the air. And there is only one other vehicle (a tourist-laden game-viewer) at the site. We have it practically to ourselves. A magical moment. A postcard for Africa.

We attempt to find more game sightings on a loop towards North Camp, but come up short on excitement apart from a very big baobab tree. The promise of lions, leopards or even cheetahs remains just a promise.

But that doesn’t phase us at all. The waterhole is fantastic. A dramatic sunset accompanies us on the drive back to camp. Another wood fire and braai. Elephants all around us, and a welcome afternoon thunderstorm. All of this and hardly anyone else in the camp. It’s quite an intimate environment, we are not even sure how big the park is, and we never did make it to Baine’s Baobabs where there was the promise of oryx. But it’s a great place to spend a couple of days, overdelivering on so many levels. And now we’ll have to come back!